This story is another excerpt from my memoirs, “Well here it is.”
©2022 Robert Sickles
Touring the southern United States in the late 50’s, my parents and I must have looked like jaw-dropping, rubber-necked northern white tourists most of the time. Don’t you imagine the locals got a little fed up with Yankee gawkers? But their dialects, local foods, climate, terrain, crops, livestock, wildlife… and, of course, those extremes of living conditions were so different from our modern suburban world. How could we not show some reaction to what we saw? I grew up in a very stable and affluent New Jersey neighborhood, and at 10 years old, the Southern U.S.A. version of economic disparity and racial division was something I didn't know existed.
Look, there's a stately oak-lined driveway leading to an elegant mansion with white columns and trimmed gardens, honored and preserved as a remnant of a bygone time. It is decorated with pretty ladies in long pastel gowns and men in gray uniforms, a bride and groom departing by horse drawn coach. Unselfconsciously it sits literally next door to a scene of utter hopelessness, where a path through tall grass lead to hollow-eyed shacks, perched on stilts and leaning on each other, hunkered for the next hurricane or flood.
"Dad," I begged, "turn down that way, I want to see what's along the levee road." We drove in our suave De Soto sedan into a poor backwater neighborhood, down a very rough road. A pair of dusty little black boys with fishing poles over their shoulders watched us drive by. A few men looked up from hoeing a small crop of tobacco. A tired-looking woman tossed a pan of wash water out the door of rag-curtained little house, scattering her chickens down a driveway of muddy ruts. The walls and roof of her house were patched-together scraps of tar paper, rusty tin and salvage wood. An old black man in overalls lit his corn cob pipe while leaning against his little truck, selling watermelons for 20¢ each and corn, 2 for a nickel.
Mom hmphed. “Bobby, why do you think these people want to live like that? That woman has such dirty children, just look at that muddy driveway!” She always seemed wise and fair-minded, but it surprised me that Mom saw things through such an odd lens.
Even with a child’s eyes, I could only watch sadly as we passed through this place. I mumbled to myself “Yeah, Mom, I'm sure she wishes she had a nice paved driveway so her kids could stay clean... and that her man would just go get a real job instead of sweat labor in the fields.” I don’t know, maybe my mother believed that at some weird time after being freed from slavery, for some unfathomable reason, blacks decided to reject America’s offers of equality and opportunity, instead going to live on the margins, preferring scrounging to abundance and choosing mud over asphalt.
In retrospect, I realize what I was seeing could have been worse. The fact was, the little boys were probably going to catch a fish, the woman was doing her best to clean her home, and she had eggs and chickens, the men in the field had a money crop, and the old man had melons and corn to sell. A better situation than many in the world have had, I'd say. If those folks looked upon us as nosey white gawkers from a different universe and we saw them as miserable poor folk, maybe a good place to start would be by being less judgmental of each other’s lives, and to consider us all as doing the best we can. Could this kind of compassion be useful in viewing our modern homeless castaways?
Well, back to the 50's... I soon was faced with a difficult lesson. Down the coast road, probably North Carolina, we stopped for gas and ice cream. I realized I was being addressed sternly by the young black gas station attendant as I was about reach for the handle of a water fountain on the outside of the store. It was the first time I had heard a person speak with a very strong southern dialect, and I wasn’t sure what he was saying. I moved again toward the fountain and he lunged forward waving his arms to warn me to stop, pointing to the small sign that cautioned COLORED ONLY. “Don’t y’all read signs? Got no sense!” he scolded. I could see he was nervously checking around and he glared and said with teeth clenched "Just got to mind the signs, son." I honestly didn’t know what was happening, but accepted that it was, for that man, more important than anything that I not drink that water. I looked around and there were COLORED ONLY and WHITE ONLY signs on the restrooms also. I now suppose he could have caught big trouble if he failed to keep me from touching the wrong fountain. Besides pumping gas and selling cigarettes and soda pop, his most important duty was monitoring the use of fountains and toilets. That this was so matter-of-fact is what stuck with me, even though I have since learned it was "normal" in lots of areas of our society to see signs like "No Irish," "Jews Need Not Apply," and "Chinese Excluded!"
As the tour went on, there were more highs and lows. In Florida, I waded in the Gulf water that smelled of petroleum and was so warm it felt more refreshing to get back on the steaming beach. A cloudburst in Tampa seemed like a pleasant relief from the heat, until the sun came back out and the steam sauna turned up. I was caught up in the spirit of the moment as a Jazz Funeral paraded by us in New Orleans, and tasted my first spicy Cajun food. I took in unfamiliar aromas of boiled peanuts, chicory coffee, steaming crawfish, jambalaya and okra gumbo. Of course, the smells of the old city were not always pleasant! And Mom tried to keep my eyes averted from the seamy street life in the French Quarter.
One final observation. I’ve never been to the equatorial jungles of southeast Asia or the Amazon. So, forgive my limited familiarity with awfully hot and truly miserable weather. But when I stepped out of the car and the air felt too muggy and thick to breath, that was my first encounter with Carolina summer humidity. Unnecessarily chipper considering my discomfort, Mom calls, "Look, there's Fort Sumter, Bobby!" I couldn't see it through my fogged-up sunglasses. From that point, man, all that mattered was air conditioning! Even now, when I hear someone complaining about the humid weather we're having, I can only reply "You haven't had an August picnic under Spanish moss with a view of Fort Sumter, have you?"